The secret to axing 3G blackspots: you

Femtocells — short-range 3G base stations that can be installed in your house to improve 3G coverage — offer great promise overseas. But how to convince Joe Bloggs to help blanket the world in 3G coverage? One company has a new approach that's well worth considering.

Network architects have known about the potential for femtocells — small, short-range mobile network base stations — to fill in mobile coverage black spots for years. The problem, of course, is getting them out there: carriers have enough spending going on with the full-sized jobbies. And if they don't spend on them, how in the world can they convince Joe Bloggs that he needs to buy and install one?

It's not like your kids are going to ask for a femtocell from Santa, and it's not likely to be an impulse buy down at the mall. Heck, just the name alone sounds like something out of a D-grade science-fiction movie. So how to convince enough people to install one in their home that it might make a difference? Why, bury it inside something else that they definitely do want, of course. Like, say, a media centre.


(Credit: Huawei)

That's the Trojan-horse approach now being pursued by Huawei, that upstart Chinese networking company that has burrowed into Australia's telecoms market in recent years. Huawei's Home Media Centre plugs into your TV and does all the usual streaming-network-movies-on-your-TV stuff, but its magic lies in the femtocell chipset that's built into the unit.

Using your existing broadband connection as a backhaul connection, the unit serves as a miniature 3G base station, allowing your phones and other 3G devices to connect without having to rely on a normal 3G signal that may be flaky or non-existent. By using a femtocell as a new form of wireless router, you can link your smartphone with the rest of your network — streaming video from your media centre, for example, or accessing web apps from your 3G iPad without chewing through your 3G bandwidth quota. And, theoretically, your phone's battery life is extended due to there being less need to communicate with far-away base stations, or even to rely on power-sucking Wi-Fi.

However, the most interesting thing about this model is that if it's widely adopted, it could finally help resolve the myriad coverage problems that we've learned to deal with, and complain about, every day. Femtocells in homes, offices and shops would help us help ourselves — eliminating complaints about blackspots and building out a more consistent 3G footprint from which we could all benefit. It's like free, communal Wi-Fi but for 3G mobiles instead — and, of course, it still uses your fixed broadband quota.

Business and home owners could theoretically charge carriers for use of their femtocells — creating a situation analogous to that of high-yielding solar-panel owners that get a credit from the utility company for the electricity they generate and inject into the power grid. Imagine getting a credit from your mobile operator instead of your usual punishing bill.

Taken to its logical conclusion, there could even be money in it for you. Business and home owners could theoretically charge carriers for use of their femtocells — creating a situation analogous to that of high-yielding solar-panel owners that get a credit from the utility company for the electricity they generate and inject into the power grid. Imagine getting a credit from your mobile operator instead of your usual punishing bill; current models have the carriers charging consumers for the devices, but some sort of credit system would certainly encourage more people to play their part in blanketing the world with 3G coverage.

Carriers are coming to the table: Huawei has already inked partnerships with the likes of Telekom Austria, China Unicom, and T-Mobile. Meanwhile, femtophile Vodafone offers its Vodafone £50 Sure Signal device (a rebadged Sagem unit) in the UK, Spain and Qatar and is testing it in Greece and Egypt. The local release of similar units is still very much up in the air, however — and Vodafone's box lacks any of the other redeeming qualities that the integrated-media-centre approach has.

Broader adoption could happen sooner rather than later, however: mobile standards body 3GPP has already standardised femtocell interfaces through the creation of the Iuh standard, and Qualcomm last week released the first samples of its FSM9xxx femtocell chipsets — which could eventually be embedded in all sorts of consumer devices.

Just how we'll get our femtocells set up, however, remains to be seen: Huawei's device is interesting, but hardly going to take over the world overnight. Perhaps it and other femtocell-promoting companies could work on integrating its chipset into things that are less gratuitously high-tech — you know, like toasters, cordless phone base stations, iPod speakers and the like — so people could just set up their own femtocells without having to make a conscious effort.

There is always, of course, the remote worry that adding high-tech circuitry to kitchen appliances could pave the way towards a Transformers 2-style nightmare scenario where the devices coordinate their devious work and come dangerously to life on the command of their alien overlords. In the meantime, however, that's going to be a risk we have to take: the only way femtocells are going to become ubiquitous is if they're installed in houses by stealth. Huawei's way is a good start.

How about you? Will you buy a femtocell for your house or business? And would you be more likely to get one if it's built into something else?

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